War Communism and New Economic Policy
In the early years of the Soviet Union, Russia's leaders faced numerous challenges in their fight to implement a socialist system across the former Russian Empire. This article explores these challenges and the policies undertaken by Soviet leaders to develop socialism in a country that was both deeply divided and antagonistic towards social change; particularly in the Soviet countryside. A key feature of this article is the discussion of both "War Communism" and the "New Economic Policy" of the early 1920s that dominated Soviet economic policy in its inchoate stages.
An overview of the Soviet economy during the 1920s is important to understand as it helps explain the basis for conflict between the state, its workers, and the peasantry prior to the 1930s. This, in turn, helps to explain why the peasant class felt a sense of total alienation and detachment from the Soviet regime.
In the decade leading up to the Ukraine Famine of 1932, the Soviet Union’s economic future faced great uncertainty as food shortages rose to new heights and the task of industrializing seemed impossible to achieve in the short-term. Moreover, the relationship between both the peasant class and Soviet government remained unclear as both sides envisioned radically different views for the future of the Communist state. Following the end of World War One and the collapse of the Tsarist regime in 1917, the newly-formed Bolshevik government attempted to bridge the gaps in these areas through the implementation of radical social, political, and economic changes under the title of, “War Communism.” This new policy aimed to stabilize governmental control in the midst of the power vacuum created with the fall of Tsar Nicholas II. More importantly, the Bolsheviks hoped that War Communism would rapidly generate much-needed grain and food supplies for the fledgling Soviet state. This, in turn, would solve two different problems for the Soviet regime. For one, more grain would help assuage food shortages across the entirety of the Soviet Union. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, a rapid increase in grain supplies would allow the regime to generate extra revenue through trade, allowing for additional financing towards both industry and technology.
The development of industry was especially important for the Soviet Union to undertake during this time since Karl Marx believed it was a fundamental component to the development of a Communist state. Only through industry could a dictatorship of the proletariat and an overthrow of the bourgeoisie occur. As Marx states, “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more” (Marx, 60-61). One major problem that the Bolsheviks faced with this ideology, however, was the fact that Russia and the Soviet Union was largely devoid of an industrial base for Communism to spring from. As a predominantly agrarian-based society, the Soviet leaders were in desperate need of a way to rapidly industrialize since peasants lacked the class-consciousness that Marx believed only an advanced capitalist state could bring about. Without this consciousness, the peasant-dominated population would desire no change in their political and economic status; thus, rendering the expulsion of the bourgeois and capitalist elements from Soviet society an impossible task to accomplish if industrialization could not be achieved.
War Communism Continued...
In order to accomplish these necessary changes in their society, the framers of War Communism sought to nationalize “banks, foreign trade, and transport” in order to impose “government control over production and distribution” (Dmytryshyn, 500-501). This, in turn, resulted in the elimination of private industry, thus, removing the threat of capitalist enterprise to Lenin’s plan for aggressive socialist expansion (Riasanovksy, 479). By attempting “to deprive the propertied classes of their influence,” however, the Bolsheviks only created “economic disorder” as they sought to impose fixed prices on grain and foodstuffs and implemented heavy regulations into the lives of the peasantry (Dmytryshyn, 501). To assert greater control over the flow of food within the Soviet sphere, the Bolsheviks even dispatched “armed food detachments” to “requisition surplus grain supplies from the peasants” for the purpose of stabilizing the dearth of resources that plagued Soviet society (Bullock, 105). Bolshevik leaders specifically tasked these brigades with eliminating so-called “privileged” elements of Soviet society – all for the purpose of ensuring social and economic equality among the masses. Yet, distinctions between rich and poor members of the peasantry mattered little as peasants of all social standings too often found themselves in the crosshairs of these overly-ambitious cadres. Consequently, both rich and poor peasants often suffered tremendous hardships as a result of War Communism’s economic policies.
As Soviet forces poured into the countryside – confiscating whatever goods they could find – the harsh realities of “War Communism” and forced grain requisitioning only led to resentment and greater instability for the Soviet state. With civil war looming in the background between both the Reds (Communists) and the Whites (Nationalists) across Russia, the policies of rapid socialist advancement only fueled the flames of dissent and rebellion as peasants began to question their loyalties to a state apparatus that seemed to care little for the needs and wishes of its subjects. As years passed, and resentment as well as anger continued to grow amongst the peasantry, one question started to prevail within the minds of the Communist leadership: could the Bolsheviks continue, indefinitely, with such strong attacks on its own population base without serious reprisals? Perhaps more importantly, could the Soviet state and socialism survive amidst a sharply divided social sphere created by their own harsh policies? By 1921, the answers to these questions were abundantly clear; War Communism had succeeded in creating a basis for strong hostility and conflict between the state and peasantry that could not easily be broken. By establishing this hostile atmosphere, War Communism had unknowingly set the stage for intense – often times violent – social unrest for the remainder of the decade.
New Economic Policy (NEP)
After several years of failed economic and agrarian policies under War Communism, the Soviet economy teetered on the brink of collapse as dissatisfied peasants (particularly those across the western half of the Soviet Union) began to protest against the strict measures of grain requisitioning and the harsh realities of burdensome taxes placed upon them by the Bolshevik regime. In 1921, this dissatisfaction reached a boiling point as nearly “200,000 peasants in the Ukraine, the Volga, Don, and Kuban valleys…took up arms against Bolshevik misrule” (Kotkin, 344). In response to the growing crisis between the state and peasantry, Vladimir Lenin issued a directive during the 10th Party Congress of 1921 that lessened the burden of grain requisitioning upon the rural and agrarian sectors of the Soviet Union and, effectively, terminated the policies of War Communism. In his March 15th, 1921 report to the Congress, Lenin stated:
“I ask you to bear in mind this basic fact…the chief thing to bear in mind at the moment is that we must let the whole world know, by wireless this very night, of our decision; we must announce that this Congress of the government party is, in the main, replacing the grain requisitioning system…and…that by embarking on this course the Congress is correcting the system of relations between the proletariat and the peasantry and expresses its conviction that in this way these relations will be made durable” (Lenin, 510).
By 1921, it had become patently clear to the Bolshevik leadership that attacks upon its own population could not continue with such ferocity and intensity. As historian Basil Dmytryshyn states, even Lenin himself, with all his radicalized ideas for the future of Communism, “was astute enough to sense the growing dissatisfaction with his policy throughout the country” and realized “that his survival was at stake” (Dmytryshyn, 502).
In response to this change in Lenin’s mentality, the 10th Party Congress “resolved on a switch to the NEP [New Economic Policy], and the replacement of grain requisitions by a flat tax” (Marples, 63). Under this new system, the fledgling Soviet government allowed peasants to sell their surplus grain after the collection of taxes for small profits (Kotkin, 388). This switch, under the guidance of Nikolay Bukharin, allowed for Soviet agriculture to grow via “small-scale capitalism” under the auspices of socialist expansion (Marples, 64). The Bolshevik leadership, although weakened, were not defeated by this new change. Rather, they remained hopeful that this switch would help stabilize the Soviet economy, all while allowing for continued growth in industry; albeit, at a very slow pace.
"Democracy is indispensable to socialism."— Vladimir Lenin
The Need for NEP
The decision to switch to the NEP reflected two aspects of Soviet society during this time. For one, it represented the lengths that Lenin and his regime were willing to go in order to maintain control and to achieve economic stability (as well as industrialization) of the Soviet Union; even if it meant endorsing capitalist, bourgeois practices in the short-term. Lenin greatly understood the need to appease the peasantry since they made up a large majority of Soviet society. Lenin recognized that industrializing the Soviet state would only anger the unstable peasantry more since a rapid growth in industry required great quantities of food and money – both of which could only be obtained through a robbery of the rural economy since the state was in no position to provide these items by itself.
Secondly, and most importantly, the switch to NEP also demonstrated the power of peasants living within the confines of the Soviet Union, and the tremendous threat they posed to the future of not only Communism, but to the stability of the entire Soviet system. Alone, peasants were weak and powerless against the Soviet regime’s brutal policies; yet, when united and acting together in unison, the peasantry represented an entity capable of mass-revolt and destruction, as seen with the uprising of 1921. For the fledgling Soviet state, which had just survived years of civil war and the invasion of foreign armies, such power by a social class was both dangerous and hazardous to the survival of the Soviet Union. As a result, the economic policies of NEP served as both a means of controlling and curtailing the power of the peasantry through pacification of their strong sense of rebelliousness.
Did the decision to switch to NEP benefit Lenin and the Bolsheviks?
In closing, such a drastic change in economic policy (from War Communism to NEP) did not sit well with the majority of Bolshevik leaders. Historian, Stephen Kotkin, argues this point well by stating that the motivations and desires of the peasant-class “acted as a severe constraint on Bolshevik ambitions” (Kotkin, 420). He goes on to say that “accommodation to the peasant…proved extremely difficult to stomach for many party stalwarts” (Kotkin, 420). Yet, due to the instability of the Soviet state during the early 1920s, concessions proved decisive in stabilizing the political and social realms of Soviet society for the time being. By making these concessions, however, NEP only served to further agitate the negative feelings of the Bolsheviks toward the peasantry. Although NEP had succeeded in stabilizing the social and political atmosphere of 1921, it only prolonged conflict, as the final half of the decade played host to rebelliousness and repression on a scale never before witnessed in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s rise to power and his collectivization drives of the latter half of the 1920s once again brought the tension of 1921 back to the forefront, as peasants and government agents clashed over the decision to reintroduce grain requisitioning through collectivized agriculture.
Timeline of Events
23 February 1917
Lenin Returns From Exile
16-20 July 1917
July Days Demonstrations
9 September 1917
25-26 October 1917
15 December 1917
Armistice between Russia and Central Powers signed.
3 March 1918
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
8 March 1918
Russian capital moved to Moscow.
30 August 1918
"Red Terror" Begins
End of "War Communism" and Beginning of NEP
3 April 1922
Stalin appointed "General Secretary"
Creation of Soviet Union
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Dmytryshyn, Basil. A History of Russia. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1977.
Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Viking, 1996.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “Review: Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance” by Lynne Viola, Journal of Social History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1998): 755-757.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
MacKenzie, David and Michael Curran. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond 6th Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.
Marker, Gary. “Review: Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance” by Lynne Viola, The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1998): 163-164.
Pianciola, Niccolo. “The Collectivization Famine in Kazakhstan, 1931-1933,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 25 No. 3/4 (2001): 237-251.
Viola, Lynne. Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Viola, Lynne. The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Viola, Lynne et. al. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Dmytryshyn, Basil. A History of Russia. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1977.
Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin Volume I, Paradoxes of Power: 1878-1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto edited by: Martin Malia. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.
Marples, David. Russia in the Twentieth Century: The Quest for Stability. Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2011.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Wikipedia contributors, "Russian Civil War," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Russian_Civil_War&oldid=886071514 (accessed March 10, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Vladimir Lenin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vladimir_Lenin&oldid=886374946 (accessed March 10, 2019).
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© 2019 Larry Slawson